Friday, December 2, 2011

The Films of David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg is, without a doubt in my mind, the best director ever to come out of Canada. His films are strange, but strange in a good way. With his latest, A Dangerous Method, on the horizon (released in New York and LA last week, and hopefully here in Canada soon), I thought I’d look back at his previous films. I should point out that I’ve never seen his 1979 film Fast Company (and nothing I’ve read suggests I need to see it), and I’ve decided to omit his student films (Stereo and Crimes of the Future) and his shorts, leaving us with 15 films, which I’ll now rank. Once you get past the bottom three, there isn’t another film I wouldn’t gladly watch again right now. (By the way, I loved how messed up the Japanese posters for Cronenberg's films are!)

15. M. Butterfly (1993)
Dull is not a word normally associated with Cronenberg’s film, but that is the only word to describe Cronenberg’s adaptation of the famed play by David Henry Hwang. It takes place in 1960s China, while British diplomat Jeremy Irons falls in love with a beautiful opera singer (John Lone), either unaware or willfully ignorant that she is really a man, despite the fact their affair lasts 20 years, and the whole time, the singer is spying on him. I see why Cronenberg was attracted to the material – he has always tackled questions of identity, the conflict between the body and the mind, and strange sex, but other than the fact the film is gorgeous to look at, there really isn’t much her. It’s too tame for Cronenberg.

14. Scanners (1981)
Scanners has entered the pop culture lexicon mainly because of the scene where Michael Ironside’s head explodes. But other than that, and other special effects, I think that Scanners isn’t really all that interesting. Yes, it addresses some of Cronenberg’s pet themes, people with telekinesis, evil corporations exploiting people, but they were better handled in The Dead Zone and Videodrome respectively. All the back and forth, all the plot twists about evil scanners and good scanners, etc grows tiring after a while. Cronenberg insists on explaining too many things, and as a result, Scanners looks kind of silly when you step back and look at as a whole. It is an interesting exercise for Cronenberg, but it feels more like a warm up for what was to come rather than a great film in its own right.

13. The Brood (1979)
Like Scanners, The Brood seems more like Cronenberg working through some issues, finding his voice, rather than being a completely satisfying film on its own terms. Cronenberg has always been fascinated by psychology, and here he tells the story of a weird shrink (Oliver Reed), who has created a new kind of therapy – called psychoplasmics – which has disastrous, unexpected consequences when he applies them on Samantha Eggar, a woman currently involved in a custody battle. Essentially, this therapy leads Eggar to birth a brood of raging, murderous children, who act out the rage that she feels. Give Cronenberg credit, he follows his strange story right down to the end, and the film is full of disturbing images that stick with you. And, Eggar dives headlong into her very strange role. The film is disgusting, to be sure, but that’s not necessarily a criticism. Overall, I liked The Brood, but I don’t feel it’s up to level that Cronenberg would later hit. It should be noted however that some people absolutely love it. I’ve heard some call it Cronenberg’s best film.

12. Rabid (1977)
As a low budget, sexually charged, freaky zombie b-movie, Rabid is actually quite good. It’s about a woman (Marilyn Chambers) who gets into a motorcycle accident, who goes to a plastic surgeon, who tries a radical new treatment (there is those freaky doctors, doing freaky things again) to repair her body. Instead, she develops a strange orifice in her armpit, which hides a penis like stinger, which strikes out at people, draining them of their blood, and turning them into zombies. Yes, it’s pretty ridiculous, but also entertaining, sexually charged, gross and quite scary at moments. It is also politically charged, and has some ideas about gender issues, that Cronenberg would later explore a little bit more thoroughly. Not a great movie by any means, but a good one.

11. Shivers (1975)
In his first theatrical film, David Cronenberg already shows the themes he will obsess on over the course of his career. Another one of his freaky doctors has created  parasites that are part aphrodisiac and part venereal disease that he implants into his teenage mistress, who spreads them among the residents on a upscale apartment building in Montreal, turning everyone into sex crazed maniacs. Cronenberg worked with very little money, and his few special effects are well handled all things considered. The films he made directly after this would have more money to do things, to let Cronenberg’s mind play, but this one he had to use his imagination to find ways to scare and disgust you without showing you all that much. In that he succeeds brilliantly. He also succeeded in pissing people off – because the film was partially funded by taxpayer dollars in Canada, a journalist raged about how horrible it was, and the film was actually debated about in Parliament. It is also a creepily effective horror film – and an excellent debut for Cronenberg.

10. The Dead Zone (1983)
David Cronenberg teamed up Stephen King to make this disturbing, scary psychological thriller – a film that really does feel like it was breakthrough for Cronenberg. Yes, it touches on some of the themes that were present in his prior films – like telekinesis – but does so with much more confidence this time. It stars Christopher Walken in a great performance as a teacher who spends five years in a coma after an accident, and wakes up to discover that he can see the future. What could have been silly, turns out to be realistic, because of the performances, the writing and the direction. This is a little less freaky, a little less Cronenbergian as some of his other films – however it was an important stepping stone for Cronenberg, and on its own terms, quite good.

9. eXistenZ (1999)
If the videotape being inserted in James Woods’ gaping chest cavity in Videodrome didn’t freak you out, how about what appears to be a living, breathing video game controller that plugs into your spine? eXistenZ came out the same year as The Matrix, and touched upon similar themes, of living in a computer generated world. But I’ll take Cronenberg’s weird world, where you have to eat a disgusting looking fish and then assemble its bone to make a gun over the Wachowskis slickness any day of the week. What’s real and what’s the game quickly becomes mixed, and the players, as well as the audience, gets lost in Cronenberg’s tangled web. May not quite be the film Videodrome is – the film on Cronenberg’s resume it most resembles – but great science fiction nonetheless.

8. Naked Lunch (1991)
Cronenberg said that to do a straight adaptation of William S. Burroughs controversial novel it would cost $100 million and be banned in every country in the world. So, instead of adapting just adapting the book, Cronenberg turned the film into a story about the writing of Naked Lunch, while throwing in moments from the book. The result is not all Burroughs, but is certainly all Cronenberg. It is a film about the creative process, about writing as much as anything else. It also has enough crazy, disgusting images – giant talking bugs, a typewriter that seemingly comes alive, someone literally tearing their body open to reveal someone else inside – to satisfy both fans of Cronenberg and Burroughs. What a strange, wonderful film this is.

7. Videodrome (1983)
1983 was a big year from Cronenberg. The Dead Zone represented a commercial breakthrough, and his other film from that year, Videodrome, a creative one. His earlier films concentrated on medical experiments, and their unexpected consequences. Videodrome is slightly different, concentrating on the physical and psychological impact of new technology. It stars James Woods as a TV executive who discovers a new show, apparently out of Malaysia, which features torture and murder. He wants to push the boundaries of his TV station, so he orders them to start broadcasting the show. But it starts to have a strange effect on him, and he starts having stranger and stranger delusions. I really can’t say more, because all it’s all complex, and even after multiple viewings, I still don’t think I understand it all. But I do love it, and in its way, the film was prophetic in its look at how the media affects us. I may not fully understand Videodrome, but I love it.

6. Spider (2002)
Released the year after Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, Spider is a much, much darker tale of the schizophrenic mind. It stars Ralph Fiennes as a man just released from a mental hospital and moves into a rooming house, where disturbing memories of his childhood start coming back to him, slowly but surely. The film takes place within Fiennes’ cracked mind, so the line between hallucination and reality is forever blurred – we are never sure of what we are seeing. Fiennes is brilliant in the lead, as is Miranda Richardson who plays more than one role, as all the women in his life seem to morph into his mother at some point. But the real star of the show here is Cronenberg himself, who somehow maintains this fractured reality brilliantly. The mind of a schizophrenic is a scary place, and Cronenberg places us inside of it, and will not let us out. Perhaps the most complex film of Cronenberg’s career.

5. Eastern Promises (2007)
Eastern Promises may not be the mind fuck that many Cronenberg films are, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as good – nor as violent or disturbing. The film opens with a midwife (Naomi Watts) wanting to track down the family of a dead Russian girl who just gave birth. The path leads her to the Russian mob, and in particular enforcer Nikolai (Viggo Mortenson). Before she knows it, she is in too deep to get out, as she in possession of a diary that a mob boss (Armin Mueller-Stahll) does not want to get out. And, as unlikely as it seems, Nikolai may be her only comrade. The film is brutally violent – highlighted by a knife fight in a bath house that sets a new standard for scenes like it. The films buried secrets are impossible to guess until the end. Mortenson is brilliant as the enigmatic driver/cleaner, and he is matched by Vincent Cassell, as Mueller-Stahll’s son, who maybe in love with him. No, Cronenberg does not mess with your head the same way he has done in the past, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t one of his best films.

4. The Fly (1986)
The Fly is one disgusting movie (how often have I used that word when describing Cronenberg’s films?). It tells the story of a brilliant scientist (Jeff Goldblum, who has never been better), who has developed Telepods, which will allow the user to transport himself from one place to another. Of course, things go horribly wrong when he winds up in one with a fly – the two organisms fusing together into one. At first, Goldblum sees nothing wrong with this – he is stronger than ever before. But the process has only just begun, and soon he becomes more insect than man. The special effects and makeup in the film are incredible. And, amazingly, The Fly also functions as a love story between Goldblum and Geena Davis, his pregnant lover. The film gets darker and stranger as it goes along, before ending in one of cinema’s most daring and memorable climaxes. Only Cronenberg could have done a film like this.

3. Dead Ringers (1988)
Dead Ringers is a disturbing tour de force for Cronenberg, as well as his star Jeremy Irons. Irons plays dual roles as twin gynecologists, who are not so much two different people, but two half people – they need the other one to make them whole. One is cruel and confident, the other shy and sensitive. For a while, they seem to function, feeding off of each other’s strengths to cover up their individual weaknesses, but that all falls away when the sensitive one falls in love with a woman with a rare gynecological condition, who gets him involved with drugs, which starts things spinning madly out of control. The film is technical marvel – you can’t spot the trick photography Cronenberg uses to have Irons in two places at once. It is also a cold, cruel film. I’m sure women will find it harder to take then men – especially late in the film when one of the twins devise new gynecological tools that look simply nasty, and then proceeds to use them. It is not an easy film to take, but it is unforgettable.

2. Crash (1996)
No stranger to controversy, the response to Crash probably surprised even Cronenberg. Ted Turner, who owned the studio who financed the film, disowned it. Some critics hated it, it was banned in several places, and denounced by the city of Naples. Some critics absolutely hated the film. And yet, the film found its audience – even winding up on Martin Scorsese’s list of the best films of the 1990s. It’s not hard to see why there was so much controversy. The film is disturbing in the extreme, as it focuses on a group of people who are sexually turned on by car crashes. The film has many fairly graphic sex scenes, which are disturbing (the ones involving Rosanna Arquette, as a woman in leg braces with a scars on the back of her legs are particularly disturbing). And yet, for all the sex in the film, it isn’t really a “sexy” film. It is cold, harsh and cruel. The hard metal of the cars, the soft flesh of the participants, the melding of machine and man, makes this a disturbing an unforgettable film – and one of Cronenberg’s masterpieces.

1. A History of Violence (2005)
I’m sure that some would rather one of Cronenberg’s more far out, mind fucks be listed as his best, but to me his seemingly more conventional A History of Violence is the apex of his career. A revisionist Western, set in the modern day Midwest, Viggo Mortenson stars as a seemingly normal man, who runs a small town diner. When two people try to rob the place, he reacts without thinking, killing both quickly, in a virtusoso sequence where Cronenberg makes you part of the bloodlust, then makes you sit in it. The resulting media attention brings back old friends to Mortenson – who claim he is an old gangster associate of theirs, and they want revenge. The old issues of identity that run through all of Cronenberg’s films surface here as well. The film is a complex examination of who this man is, and whether it’s possible for him to change. Mortenson is great, and he is matched by Maria Bello, horrified by the fact she doesn’t really know her husband, and Ed Harris and William Hurt as figures out of the past. This is not as disgusting as many of Cronenberg’s film, nor really as complex, but it is his best film – at least in my eyes.

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